Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer popularized “speciesism,” a derogatory term for the belief that it is acceptable to treat humans differently from animals based solely on species membership. Singer identified this idea as a form of discrimination, as odious as racism and sexism.
Speciesism is universally condemned within the animal rights movement (as distinguished from animal welfare advocacy), which holds, in the words of PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk, “There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Which is to say, animals and humans have equal moral worth.
The bioethics movement also disdains speciesism. Many of its adherents refuse to acknowledge the sanctity and equality of human life, instead taking the so-called “quality of life” approach, which determines the moral value of each organism—whether human, animal, or plant—by measuring its individual cognitive capacities. Whatever is self-aware or able to value its own life (for example) is designated as a “person,” even if it is an animal, while people lacking these attributes are denigrated as human “non-persons”—an invidious category that includes all of the unborn, as well as (for many bioethics practitioners) infants and those with profound cognitive disabilities.
Advocates of the term “speciesism” believe that designating a special status for humans is irrational. They are wrong. In fact, they are the ones ascribing to an ideology—merely the most recent of many in human history—that attempts to rationalize discrimination and oppression against some of us based on subjective criteria, this time with victims the least able to defend themselves.
Take, for example, Singer’s abhorrent utilitarian advocacy. Singer was more responsible than anyone else for making the term “speciesism” known, beginning in 1975 with his highly influential book Animal Liberation and continuing with his widely professed proposal that so-called human non-persons can be killed (infanticide or non-voluntary euthanasia) because of their “lower” moral status.
Recently, Singer repeated this assertion in an interview in the Journal of Medical Ethics, arguing that people with serious developmental and cognitive disabilities have less value than animals with higher capacities, strongly implying that we can treat them accordingly (my emphasis):
“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability. But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being.
On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defense of speciesism.
Outside the rarified environs of the high academy and the fever swamps of animal rights advocacy, most people in the West believe that the lives of all human beings—not just the “normal” ones—are worth more than animals’, simply because they are human. And they would consider it barbaric to treat any of us like, well, animals based on whatever distinctions advocates like Singer conjure.
Besides, “speciesism” is nothing akin to racism or other such -isms directed against our fellow human beings. Invidious discrimination exists when inherent equals—for example, all human beings—are treated unequally based on sub-categories that bigots assert to reduce the moral status of the disfavored classes, placing them beneath the favored. We see it in racism, sexism, and Singer-style denigration of people with cognitive or developmental disabilities. But there is a rational and proper hierarchy of life with humans at its apex. To put it another way, human beings and animals do not inhabit the same moral realm. It is not, therefore, wrong to discriminate between us and them, for to do so is to treat unequals as unequals.
Moreover, human exceptionalism is the predicate to universal human rights. The moral philosophy of Western Civilization perceives intrinsic human equality as an objective truth under which our moral status need not be earned by possessing favored characteristics; it comes with the package of species membership. This fundamental insight (“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ”) sparked historically unprecedented heights of liberty and prosperity. Those who cry “speciesism” subvert the principles upon which our liberty is founded. Indeed, they advocate treating people as no more than the sum of their carbon molecules, of no inherent value beyond cognitive capacity (bioethics) or ability to suffer (animal rights) at the moment of measurement. To say the least, universal human rights would be impossible to sustain in such an intellectual milieu.
That does not mean, of course, that we can therefore abuse animals, as some would claim. To the contrary, another fundamental insight of human exceptionalism holds that we alone within the known universe bear essential moral duties. This includes the obligation to treat animals humanely precisely because we understand and appreciate their capacity to suffer.
But that empathetic comprehension does not justify our treating animals as equals or distinguishing among ourselves based on capacities. Doing so would not lead us to treat animals like people but rather to treat the weakest people like animals, opening the door to such things as conducting medical experiments on the cognitively disabled, which has already been proposed in bioethics literature.
Those who throw out accusations of “speciesism” seek to subvert human exceptionalism. Their framework should be rejected as a prescription for tyranny every time it is proposed.